Sleepily nursing my eight-day-old daughter after sending my one- and three- year olds off to school, I considered that it was Wednesday. Not just any Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday. I felt something stir deep within my exhausted, still healing body: “I want to go to church today.” Not to preside, but to be present at the beginning of the spiritual and temporal accounting that is Lent. Only the day before, my pediatrician had specifically forbidden me to take my baby to church and risk exposing her to others’ infections. Dare I disregard her advice? Choosing the safer route, I reached out to my fellow young clergy women, seeking sermons they would be preaching that day. I read each sermon aloud to my daughter, each one eloquent and challenging in its own way. But with each sermon that I read, my soul yearned more deeply for church.
I didn’t long to be in my church. I didn’t need to say anything or to know anyone. I imagined sliding into a back pew in a church full of strangers. I imagined joining a long line of worshippers receiving the imposition of ashes. I imagined the ashy sign of the cross on my as-yet unbaptized daughter. Body and soul, I longed for this experience.
It dawned on me that I needed to mark the Lenten journey somehow. Exhausted, on maternity leave from my congregation, I wondered what I might do to stay connected in the rhythm of the church year. I settled on simplicity as my Lenten practice. I resolved to clear out and clean my house during the six weeks before Easter. Each morning I would set my intention to allow the external cleaning process to clear away my internal barriers to God. And each day after only a few minutes I found myself on the phone – my mother, my sister, my best friend, anyone who had time to talk – because again, I longed for community. I wanted to be with someone in the ritual.
Only three weeks later, my infant daughter was hospitalized with RSV and my resolve toward simplicity became a large-as-life reality. I ate. I slept. My husband and I traded child care for our older children and vigil for the baby. And I prayed. On the second night that my daughter was in the hospital, I realized again that I needed church. I reached out to a member of my congregation who has the gift of healing. I needed connection. I needed someone else’s strength, someone else’s prayers. My soul yearned for church.
The next week my daughter came home, and the unrelenting pace of life with young children caught up with me. My husband and I were more exhausted than ever, and now everything needed to be done – dishes, laundry, play time with the children, grocery shopping, hair cuts, school pictures, etc. My life felt out of control, chaotic. I couldn’t find energy to pray or space to sit in God’s presence. I wanted someplace that I could find solitude and solace. I longed for a break from the chaos of our lives. Again, I yearned for church.
The longer I was away from church, the more spiritually unmoored I felt. I became a raft floating on turbulent waters. At the beginning, it seemed I could almost touch the shore from my little raft. But in a few short weeks, I was so far out to sea that I couldn’t even see which direction to point myself. I still longed for something beyond what my family, friends, therapist, or I could provide. I just didn’t know which way to set out in search of what might reconnect me.
And then, my daughter was old enough to venture into the world. We attended church as a family to celebrate Easter. I was exhausted, and I moved through the ritual almost mindlessly. But when I came home, I found I was reconnected, grounded. My soul felt peace. We had experienced church.
Certainly, you find church in the rituals of worship, and indeed in gathering for worship at all. However, church is so much more than worship. It includes my singular experience of God paired with others’ experiences of God, somehow coming together in a communal experience of God. Church is the place where body meets body and soul meets soul. It is the place of absolute safety and security, where we each are defined by God’s love of us — and where we together come to completion in that love. Without all of these elements, church never becomes church. Perhaps this was Paul’s intention when he spoke of the community as the Body of Christ. This community, this church, brings us connection, grace, strength, healing, peace.
Easter Sunday night was a tough one. I was up with the baby more often than I was asleep. Yet somehow, even in this sleeplessness, I found a rest I had not felt in a long time. I still had a long way to go on my journey back to wholeness, but I no longer felt completely unmoored. The waters felt calmer; I knew which way to head. I felt direction, connection, peace.
I can meet God on a beautiful lakefront. I can meet God in personal Bible study and prayer. But I can’t meet you there. I now understand how it is significant that we do church together. Participating in ritual alongside other people connects us with God in an important and unique way. Whether it’s trudging the road to the cross during Lent, or celebrating the risen Christ in the Eucharist, or living our day-to-day chaotic lives, church invites us to do it in community. Others’ simple presence tells us we’re not alone; we’re not the only ones. And that makes all the difference.